Mira Schendel’s recent exhibition at Tate Modern has made international audiences more aware of this long established artist. Born in Switzerland in 1904 to a Czech father and a German-Italian mother, Mira (as she was known throughout her life) grew up in a pre-war cosmopolitan Europe, mixing with artists and aristocrats. Having been brought up in Italy as a Catholic, her Jewish heritage forced her to flee the country during the Second World War, after being expelled from the University of Milan where she studied philosophy. She spent the latter part of the 1940s between Switzerland, Austria, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia.
Mira emigrated to Brazil in 1949, settling in São Paulo and dedicating the rest of her life to re-inventing European Modernism in a Brazilian context. Her works contributed to the debate at the time raging in Brazil, of whether to take modern art down abstract or figurative paths. With her bold canvases juxtaposing geometric shapes with the written word, Mira sided with non-representational art, the trend that was to dominate the Brazilian scene after the Ruptura group premiered with their joint exhibition in 1952 in the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art. Exile and the problems of language and communication are constant themes in her work, reflecting her experiences in Europe and Brazil. Mira Schendel died in São Paulo in 1988.
A near contemporary of Mira, Lygia Clark was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1920 and started her formal career in 1947 when she moved to Rio to study with Roberto Burle Marx. In 1950 she went to Paris, where she perfect her techniques with Fernan Léger and Árpád Szenes. Re-entering Brazil, Clark sided with non-figurative art, helping launch Constructivism in the country with the collective Grupo Frente and taking part in its first exhibition in Galeria do Ibeu in Rio de Janeiro. In the years that followed Clark diverged from the group, focusing more and more on participative art and designing pieces where interaction with audiences was paramount to a joint creation of meaning. As part of this development, she began to call herself a non-artist (não artista). Masks, costumes and sculptures became her medium as she distanced herself from the painting and geometric compositions of her earlier career. These changes happened in the context of the military dictatorship which ruled over Brazil from the 1964 to 1985, a period during which Clark lived mostly in Paris, teaching at the Sorbonne and engaging in collaborative work with her students. The experience of exile fused with the Clarks theories on the relationship between art and society, leading to a decidedly political aspect of her production that concentrated on the therapeutic possibilities of art in processing trauma and memory. She returned to Rio in 1976 after a thaw in the regime, and kept working up until her death in 1988. A retrospective fully dedicated to her work is currently in display at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1960, Adriana Varejão belongs to a different generation from that of Clark and Schendel, with other preoccupations and issues in her work. While artists of previous generations looked up to Europe for new models with which to reinvigorate Brazilian art, after the 1980s and the fall of the dictatorship art became increasingly political. While late Lygia Clark is already an example of this, Varejão grew up almost entirely under the experience of a military regime and had her first solo exhibition in Rio in 1988. Her works engage directly with the colonial past of Brazil by appropriating traditionally Portuguese media, notably azulejos, tiles, to articulate the experiences of the marginalised and the oppressed. Drawing from the iconography of the 17th century in Portugal and Brazil, the Baroque element of her installations, sculptures and mosaics contrasts starkly with the simplicity of forms and emphasis on concept of the period that preceded her in Brazilian art. In a blend of painting and sculpture, Varejão often recreates the texture of flesh in her works, adding a disturbingly erotic element to her compositions that highlights the cruelty of the past she seeks to understand. More recently, her work has turned to architecture, appropriating spaces such as butcher-shops, swimming pools and hotel lobbies as a way to critique contemporary society. There have been international exhibitions of Varejão at the Tate Modern, the Guggenheim in New York, the Hara Museum in Tokyo, among other major venues. Adriana Varejão currently lives and works in Rio.
Launched internationally by artist and art dealer Marcantônio Vilaça, who also had a hand in giving a boost to Adriana Varejão, Beatriz Milhazes was born in Rio in 1960, living and working there to this day. Expressing herself through painting, collages and print-making, Milhazes is known for her colourful use of botanical motifs, Brazilian imagery and everyday objects. In reaction to the previous experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, from the 1980s onwards artists in Brazil started experimenting more with texture and other materials and Milhazes is a good example of this trend, mixing paint with cut paper and plastic. Nonetheless, her use of geometrical shapes, stripes and rays testifies to her indebtedness to the Brazilian Modernist tradition, combining the past and the present in works which achieve a vibrancy that has been compared to the effect of music and fireworks. Milhazes herself has confirmed in interviews the influence of classical opera and Brazilian popular music in her aesthetics, confirming the fusion of genres and practices that critics have found in her production. Her painting ‘Meu Limão’ fetched an astounding $2m in 2012 in an auction in New York, becoming the most expensive work sold by a living Brazilian artist, a feat accomplished before by Varejão and again by Milhazes before her, illustrating well the importance of both artists in the contemporary Brazilian art scene. Milhazes also represented Brazil in the Venice Biennale in 2003, cementing her growing reputation and the visibility of women in contemporary Brazilian art.
By Simão Valente